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The Buffalo Bills should act sooner, rather than later, to search for a new ownership group willing to tackle the heavy debt load of buying the team and possibly building a new stadium, the team’s former landlord, Joel A. Giambra, urged Sunday.

Giambra, the former two-term Erie County executive, said he plans to contact the Bills with his thoughts after news of a 10-year lease deal that keeps the team here for at least the next seven years. In those first seven years, the team would have to pay $400 million to move.

“The reality is that it’s going to be very difficult to keep this team here in the long run,” Giambra said in a telephone interview. “It appears to me that in order to keep this franchise in this community [long-term], it’s going to take an ownership group willing to lose tens of millions a year for a long period of time.

“We should find out now if there is an ownership group willing to buy this team,” he added. “Shouldn’t we find out sooner, rather than later?”

Bills CEO Russ Brandon said he’s grown weary of answering such questions, especially after owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and the team made such an ironclad commitment to stay here for the next seven years.

“It’s tiresome,” Brandon said Sunday, about 20 minutes before the Bills-Miami Dolphins kickoff. “It’s a tiresome question, and we should be focused on the fact that Mr. Wilson once again has proven his loyalty, his commitment and his dedication to Western New York. This should be a time of celebrating him for his continued commitment.”

In 1998, if the Bills, Erie County and New York State had carved out a 25-year lease deal, people would have been thrilled, Brandon said. That, in effect, is what has happened – with the 15-year lease signed then and the new 10-year lease – plus the Bills have made a much stronger commitment to staying here for at least the next seven years, he said. Also, the parties involved have committed resources to study the feasibility of a new stadium and the team’s long-term future here.

“It’s a win-win, progressive agreement,” Brandon said.

Agreeing with Brandon was Erkie Kailbourne, a veteran banking executive and former head of the Business Backs the Bills committee.

“It was a great seven-year commitment to keep the team here that long, if not longer,” Kailbourne said Sunday. “I am very pleased. I think it was a real commitment by Mr. Wilson to keep the team here in a small market.”

Giambra, though, cited some pretty sobering numbers tied to the Bills staying here long-term.

The Bills might fetch an $800 million sale price, most analysts agree. And a new stadium likely would cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion. With pressure on governments not to spend too much taxpayer money on such facilities, a new ownership group building a new stadium likely would face a debt load of over $1 billion, business leaders have said.

That’s an extremely heavy lift, no matter how many young hedge-fund multimillionaires can be lured to a new ownership group.

Giambra acknowledged that it’s difficult to talk about the Buffalo Bills after Ralph Wilson, who has been the only owner since the team began in 1960.

“Nobody wants to talk about this,” he said. “It’s uncertain how long Mr. Wilson will remain the owner of this team. That uncertainty is going to make it even more difficult for us to keep the team after seven years, if we don’t get a new ownership team soon.”

The problem, of course, is that Buffalo, as a smaller-market team in a region with a lack of Fortune 500 companies, faces a “price ceiling” in how much the team can charge for tickets, premium seats, suites and sponsorships.

As county executive for eight years, Giambra said he met with Wilson almost every year at summer training camp. At those times, Giambra claimed, Wilson made it clear to him that small markets would face a tough time competing in the new National Football League economics.

“My concern is very similar to the concerns that Mr. Wilson shared with me many times,” Giambra said. “Can this community, under the current NFL economics and the economic conditions of this community, compete to keep an NFL franchise here?

“Is pro football in this market over after seven years?” Giambra added. “Nobody has the answer to that question. But we as a community and the team’s ownership – either this ownership or a new ownership group – have to determine that sooner, rather than later.”

Others, though, say that the new seven-year guarantee buys a lot of time. By 2020, some other team, such as Jacksonville’s or San Diego’s, could have filled the obvious franchise void in Los Angeles.

And some people believe it’s not a foregone conclusion that Ralph Wilson Stadium must be replaced. Staying in that stadium long-term, though, probably would require a more major investment, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The seven years allows the Bills a lot of options to remain in Western New York,” Kailbourne said. “At the end of the day, their current facility is still a great football venue.”



email: gwarner@buffnews.com